December's Conference Of the parties (COP) summit was a fractious affair, amid divisions between the developed and developing nations and between four fossil-fuel giants and everyone else.
COP24 sought a plan of action for each country to meet its 2015 Paris Agreement targets. Published just weeks earlier, the damning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the impacts of global warming brought real urgency to the summit.
The report highlights differences in impact between temperatures rising 1.5°C and 2°C. It concluded that, with the world on course to heat up by 3°C, we have less than 12 years – to 2030 – to change direction.
But COP24 failed to deliver a consensus.
Russia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the US moved to prevent the conference agreeing more ambitious objectives. The four refuseniks pressed delegates to ‘note’ rather than ‘welcome’ the IPCC report.
Host nation Poland is Europe’s second-largest producer of coal. NGOs criticised the country’s lacklustre leadership, failing to press the refuseniks to embrace the spirit and terms of the Paris accords.
Having opened then left the conference, United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres flew back to Poland, seeking to end the deadlock.
Diplomats don’t bang tables, but Mr Guterres was not impressed. He told delegates: “Emissions must decline by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 and be net zero by 2050.
“Renewable energy will need to supply half to two-thirds of the world’s primary energy by 2050. And coal must provide less than 7 per cent of global energy, from current levels of approximately one-third of all energy used worldwide.
“In short, we need a complete transformation of our global energy economy and how we manage land and forest resources. We must embrace low-carbon, climate-resilient sustainable development.”
Meanwhile, disagreements had surfaced over carbon credits. These are awarded to against countries’ efforts to cut emissions and to protect and expand carbon sinks, such as forests.
Having elected climate-change sceptic Jair Bolsonaro president, former climate-talks mediator Brazil sidled towards the refuseniks. Its delegates demanded new wording that critics claimed allowed double-counting of carbon credits, undermining the system.
And China accused wealthy nations of “backsliding” to the tune of US$30 billion on their obligations to help poorer countries to tackle pollution to 2020.
On the final day, there was no consensus. As discussions dragged into the weekend, delegates postponed decisions on carbon credits until this year.
They also delayed tougher emissions targets to next year. In 2020, countries must check in against targets set a decade earlier, setting new, tougher targets.
NGOs are dismayed by the postponements, given the scale and urgency of the challenge that the IPCC report presents.
There was some progress. Parties agreed a Paris Rulebook, to put the 2015 agreement into practice. This includes ways to measure, report and verify efforts to cut emissions, setting common standards to hold governments to account.
The Katowice Climate Package directs how countries provide information about the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that describe their domestic climate actions.
Countries must set out how they are mitigating and adapting to climate change, and what financial support they are giving developing countries for climate action. New finance targets from 2025 look set to exceed the US$100 billion annual target from 2020.
Developed countries also agreed to replenish the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and to donate US$129 million to the Adaptation Fund. Germany and Norway promised to double their contributions to the GCF, and the World Bank pledged US$200 billion towards climate action in 2021-2025.
So, does COP24 advance the battle against climate change? The answer is yes, but not enough.
The Paris Rulebook will not stop pollution reaching critical levels. Governments need to go much, much further to rein in their emissions. And in delaying the difficult decisions, COP24 ensures a much tougher battle to come.
As the beating heart of Polish coal and steel production, Katowice was always an odd choice to host a climate summit. The COP24 venue sits atop a former coal mine, its black iron tower glowering down over Spodek Arena’s spaceship curves.
And of all our many polluting nasties – plastics, petrochemicals, agrichemicals – it was coal that dominated the COP24 agenda.
Developing island nations pleaded with coal-producing developed countries to lead and fund the transition to renewables. Meanwhile, European Union members demanded more support for industrial areas to transition from fossil fuels.
Poland is Europe’s second-largest producer of coal. The industry employs 82,000 people, half living in the Silesia conurbation that centres on Katowice. The city is infamous for its air quality. Its people breathe the equivalent to 1,711 cigarettes a year, according to Katowice Smog Alarm.
Former US vice-president Al Gore put the case starkly. “Germany and Poland have half the coal-fired power-generating capacity in Europe,” he said. “Of the 55 most polluted cities in Europe, 33 are in Poland.
“A baby born in Warsaw will inhale the equivalent of a thousand cigarettes in its first year of life. Poor air causes 47,500 premature deaths every year in Poland. And surveys show that 69 per cent of Poland’s citizens favour the phase-out of coal by 2030.”
But beyond the COP24 bubble, Silesia’s citizens were ambivalent about climate change. “We are clean – our house uses gas, not coal, for heat,” said one woman. “But what about all the others; the old people and the poor people? It costs a lot of money to convert homes that use coal for heat; who will pay for that?”
Polish politicians and trade union leaders demanded a just transition from fossil fuels. President Andrzej Duda said: “One of the challenges… is how to reconcile economic growth with taking care of the environment. The choice we are making is not between jobs and the natural environment – but whether we keep both, or none of them.”
Karen Thomas is editor of The Environment magazine. Read her full report from COP24 in the February issue.
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